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DAM 101

Breaking Down the Meaning of Metadata

Ben Owen

By Ben Owen | Aug 25, 2022

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What is metadata? You’ve likely heard this term thrown around by creative agencies, photographers, SaaS platforms, and digital asset management (DAM) consultants like Stacks. Just like many other words that are usedtoday, its definition can be muddled with jargon and buzzwords that only make its meaning less clear. For example, if you’ve researched metadata, you’ve probably found it defined as “data about data.” Helpful, right? Wrong.

In this article, we aim to clear up confusion about metadata. What it is, how it applies to you and your organization’s digital assets, and how toapply it to assets in an organized way.

Metadata Definitions

1. What’s Metadata?

As we’ve already mentioned, the most common definition of metadata is “data about data.” While this is true, this description is about as clear as mud since the meaning of “data” is ambiguous at best. The best place to start understanding what metadata is, therefore, is to define what “data” is.

When you hear the word “data,” you probably think it refers to statistics, facts, and figures, and you wouldn’t be wrong. It’s usually what someone means when they say something like “We need to collect all the data before making a decision.” However, this is only the meaning of the first use of the word “data” in the “data about data” definition above. Since the rise of computers there's a another definition of data that provides clarity to the second use of “data” in the definition of metadata.

In this context, data is the quantities, symbols, characters, or files on which operations are performed by a computer, are stored and transmitted in the form of electrical signals, and are recorded on magnetic, optical, or mechanical recording media (Oxford Languages). In other words, everything on your computer consists of data. This, then, is the meaning of the second use of “data” in the definition of metadata as “data about data.

Metadata Example

Let’s use an example to clarify what we mean. Let’s say you take some photos at your child’s first birthday party and upload them to your computer. Because the photos live in your computer and can be seen, understood, and manipulated by it, they're classified as data, given our second definition of the word.

When you look at the photos on your computer, you may see information about them, such as the date they were uploaded, who uploaded them, their size, and the name of the file. All this information is data (facts, figures, statistics) about the photo, a piece of data (a file stored on the computer). In other words, this information is metadata.

2. What’s the difference between Metadata and Keywords?

You may have heard the word “keywords” thrown around alongside metadata. The two words are sometimes used interchangeably, even though they aren’t the same thing. So, what’s the difference?

Think about the relationship between metadata and keywords like that between a homemade cake and thea ingredients in the recipe used to make it. If you’re making a cake, eggs and sugar are usually vitally important parts of the recipe. However, since you wouldn’t serve guests a plate of just eggs and sugar, these ingredients are parts of a larger whole—the cake. In this example, well-organized metadata is similar to a cake. All the pieces of data (i.e. ingredients) about a specific file on your computer comprise metadata (i.e. the cake). Keywords are a type of data that can be applied to files on your computer either manually or automatically using artificial intelligence.

Keywords are often the primary method used to quickly search for and find specific files oncomputers. Think about how we use Google. We type in keywords that apply to our search and look through the results. The same is true for metadata keywords. They are specific and unique to the file they're applied to, the owner of the file, and the context the file will be used within.

Metadata Keywords Example

In this example, “Tags” is the MacOS term for keywords. Keywords and tags mean the same thing and operate the same way. Because specific tags/keywords have been applied to this photo, the user can easily find it by typing the term “Work” into their navigation search bar.

This is just one example of the way that organized and well-applied metadata can empower your file organization efforts. While this is a simple example for personal use, ensuring every file has the proper metadata and keywords applied to it is more complicated and time-consuming.

3. What’s Metadata Tagging?

Metadata tagging is the process of adding metadata to a file manually or automatically using artificial intelligence. Sometimes called “enrichment,” this process is vital for people or organizations managing many different files that need to be found quickly and easily by a variety of end-users.

The enrichment of digital files with metadata should be guided by clearly-documented standards such as an organizational taxonomy, controlled vocabulary, and file naming conventions. If your organization needs help developing and documenting these standards, as well as applying them to your digital files, check out our blog for more information and contact Stacks today!

Metadata Best Practices

Now that you know what metadata and its related activities and terms are, it’s time to define some best practices for putting it to use.

1. Metadata Mapping

As we stated above, keywords are just one type of metadata that makes digital content searchable and easy to filter and use. There are many fields and forms of metadata that can be applied to digital assets depending on the metadata standard you choose to use. A metadata standard is a method of mapping specific file information to fields defined by other creators and systems. The most common metadata standard is IPTC, which stands for International Press Telecommunications Council, the group that developed the standard.

Most digital asset management (DAM) systems support the IPTC standard of mapping metadata onto files, but sometimes you’ll need to get creative with what fields you choose to put specific categories of information into. Since IPTC standard metadata formats don’t support custom fields, some information may need to be placed in fields whose names aren’t necessarily intuitive. Because of this, you’ll need to create a table to map what metadata goes in what fields for everyone enriching assets or searching for them to reference.

Example Metadata Mapping

2. Documenting Metadata Standards

Mapping your metadata fields is the first step in enabling the effective use of metadata. All your metadata standards should also be documented in a way that’s easy to understand and access. This ensures that your organization is managing its digital assets efficiently and effectively.

One of the most important pieces of the documentation process is to document standards in two ways. First, document standards in a place that's easy to edit and change. Metadata is not only a reflection of content, but also of an organization as a whole, its goals, strategies, and products. Organizations change from year to year and, because of this, so should their metadata standards. These changes aren’t necessarily extensive every year, but are necessary to ensure the organization’s standards stay up to date.

Once any necessary changes are made, standards should be documented in a more permanent way, either through a PDF document, presentation, or training materials that can be widely distributed throughout the organization and referenced whenever necessary.

Example Metadata Standards

3. Embedding Metadata on Files

Besides documenting your metadata standards, there's another best practice related to metadata tagging that’s vital to the long-term success of your DAM program: making sure attached metadata is embedded in the asset itself.

Embedded metadata stays attached to an asset no matter the system it's stored within. This may seem simple and straightforward, but if your organization uses a DAM platform, not embedding data on your assets can pose a threat to the future scalability of your DAM program. For example, if your team is tagging assets with metadata after they they've been published to the DAM platform, the metadata they're adding onto assets may not be embedded. This means that if your organization changes DAM platforms, the assets you transfer won’t retain their metadata and you'll need to pay the platform vendor to document your standards and re-attach your metadata to every asset.

How to Check for Embedded Metadata

How can you check if the metadata you're adding to your assets is embedded? First, access your DAM system, whether it’s a dedicated DAM platform or something simpler like a cloud-based file-sharing service (ex. Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, SharePoint). Next, identify an asset you’d like to use in your experiment. While within the DAM system, add a piece of metadata to it that stands out. We recommend a keyword in all caps.

Once the metadata is added, download the asset locally to your device. Using an editing platform like Adobe Bridge or PhotoMechanic, take a look at the metadata on the asset. If your new piece of metadata shows up your metadata is embedded. If it doesn’t that means the metadata your team is attaching to assets only exists within the DAM system.

4. Metadata Management

The last best practice we suggest is to prioritize the management of your organization’s metadata. As we noted above, metadata is an ever-changing set of information that ensures your digital assets are easy to find, filter, share, and put to use. The metadata you use should not only reflect your organization, its brand identity, content strategy, and core values, but also the individual asset you plan to create. Below are a few examples of activities related to metadata management.

  • Administration of documented metadata standards
  • Management of large-scale metadata enrichment projects
  • Collaboration with the marketing team to ensure metadata matches SEO efforts
  • Auditing the DAM system regularly to ensure proper use of metadata
  • Managing the asset archive and archive metadata standards
  • Development and administration of an asset and embedded metadata approval process


If your team needs help getting started putting metadata to use internally, contact Stacks! We’d be happy to help educate your team, develop and document standards, tune and adjust processes and workflows, and/or manage the DAM system and your metadata long-term.

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